My treasured friend Ralph Berkowitz turned the page without fuss on 2 August 2011, within a stroll of his 101st birthday. Making up a program today for a music festival for which I serve as artistic director, I thought long and hard about Ralph. You see, I found myself tempted to program one of my own pieces, a set of piano variations commissioned by Ralph and based on a four note theme constructed from our conjoined initials.
While in Albuquerque on 12 December 2001 for Gary Graffman's performance of the left hand piano concerto that I had written for him (Seven Last Words with the New Mexico Symphony), Gilda and I made a point of spending a long afternoon and evening with my brother Kevin and Ralph at Ralph's cozy Albuquerque bungalow. A Curtis graduate (a member of its very first graduating class) born in 1910, Ralph was Gregor Piatagorsky's accompanist until the cellist's death in 1972. He was also a composer, arranger, and arts administrator, and was largely instrumental in keeping the Tanglewood Festival alive following Serge Koussevitzky's death. That doesn't even scratch the surface of all the fascinating things Ralph was and did.
A gracious host who understood his fellow musicians, he had placed a copy (opened, naturally) of the published score of my Piano Variations on the rack of the exquisite Steinway that filled a third of his living room. I glanced at it and saw that he had covered the score with fingerings, and had analyzed the music in several colors of pencil. Along with framed pictures of Bernstein, Copland, Heifetz, and the rest atop the piano there stood a picture of Ralph sitting in the balcony of Curtis Hall in the spot where my Curtis classmate and best friend Norman's parents had sat with Ned the evening of the performance of my memorial symphony for Norman. Ralph was seated with Menotti, Barber, and Rosario Scalero. "Can you tell me about those days?" I asked Ralph, bringing the picture over to him. "Sure. They are all here with us right now. Look," he said, the index finger of his hand drifting toward the other side of the room.
After reminiscing for a few hours, the light fading, Ralph lit a cheroot, waved the match, placed it in the ashtray at his elbow, took a small sip from his scotch, and sighed. "I don't believe in regrets." He smiled. "Listen, honey," he said, when he didn't call me sweetie, "I want to tell you a dream I've had hundreds of times over the past sixty years. And you can tell me what you think it means: A long, dark limousine pulls up in front of my little bungalow. I walk out to the curb to see who it might be. Inside sits a beautiful young woman in a flowing white dress. She rolls down the window. 'Do you think,' she asks sweetly, 'that it's right that the Virgin Mary should have to pay for gas?'"
Next page: Suite Blitzstein
Previous page: Amelia Overview